Read Holiday Horse Online

Authors: Bonnie Bryant

Holiday Horse (9 page)

BOOK: Holiday Horse
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“Hey,” Chad said, suddenly sounding suspicious again—and more than a little annoyed. “Was that a baby in the background? I should have known it was you all along, Stevie!” He slammed down the phone.

Stevie groaned. “Maxi!” she chided, grabbing the baby and swinging her up into the air like Superbaby. “You ruined it! He was about to start singing. He would never have lived that one down.”

“Too bad, Stevie,” Lisa said with a laugh. “Now Chad will be on the lookout. You’ll have a hard time fooling him again.”

Carole nodded and grinned. “You might as well give up for tonight.”

“Never,” Stevie declared. She set Maxi down again and the baby raised her arms, squealing for more. “But I’m definitely going to have to wait until Superbaby goes to sleep.”

“I
CAN’T BELIEVE
he hasn’t called,” Stevie muttered. She held her watch to her ear. “What time do you have, Lisa?”

Lisa sighed. “Twelve minutes after nine,” she said. “One minute later than the last time you asked me.”

“Why hasn’t he called?” Stevie jumped out of the chair she was sitting in and started pacing back and forth across the living room. Her path was a twisting one, since she had to dodge the baby toys that still lay all over the floor.

Maxi watched Stevie with what seemed to be great interest. “Ga!” she cried happily, waving her stuffed horse in the air.

“That’s what I say, too, Maxi,” Carole said. “Ga.” She rolled her eyes. Stevie hadn’t taken her eyes off the clock—or the phone—since five minutes to nine. But Phil hadn’t called.

“He’s probably just running late again,” Lisa said. “There’s a lot to do at Disney World.”

“I know,” Stevie said. “But he said he was going to a fireworks display at nine. That means if he hasn’t called by now, he’s probably not going to call at all.” She flopped back into the chair and crossed her arms over her chest.

Carole shifted her position on the couch and felt something jab her leg. She investigated and found a rattle sticking up between the cushions. “There’s no sense just sitting there getting crankier and crankier,” she told Stevie, pulling out the rattle and tossing it into the playpen. “Why don’t you try calling him?”

Stevie looked over at her and frowned. Then she grinned. “You know, you sounded just like your dad for a second there.” She stood up again and grabbed the phone from the mantel, where she had put it to keep it out of Maxi’s reach.

She dialed Phil’s room. There was no answer. Stevie let it ring seventeen times, then finally hung up in frustration. “He’s not there,” she said, her forehead beginning to crease into a frown again. “I guess he forgot all about me.”

Lisa shot Carole a worried look. This wasn’t good. They already had one baby who seemed as though she’d never sleep again. The last thing they needed was for Stevie to start pouting and acting like a
second
baby.

“I’ve got an idea,” Carole announced suddenly. “I think we need to tire Maxi out or she’ll stay awake all night. Why don’t we take her down to the stable to say good night to the horses?”

Lisa sat up straight. “Great idea,” she said. “That just might do the trick.”
Besides
, she thought,
it also just might distract Stevie from brooding about Phil’s missing their nine o’clock phone date. At least until
ten
o’clock rolls around
.

Stevie shrugged, but her frown faded a little. “I guess that could be fun,” she said. “Maxi loves the stable. And we did promise Max we’d look in on the horses.”

It was settled. Within minutes, the girls had Maxi bundled in so many layers of clothing that she was almost twice her actual size.

“That should do it,” Lisa said, straightening the hat she had just tied under the baby’s chin.

Carole giggled. “She looks like an overstuffed sausage,” she said. She went to the closet and took out the girls’ coats. She handed Lisa’s to her, then looked doubtfully at Phil’s jacket. “Are you sure this is going to be warm enough, Stevie?”

Stevie grabbed it. “I’ll be okay,” she said. “We don’t have far to go.”

Lisa found the infant carrier and slipped it on before putting on her coat. “I’ll carry Maxi down in this,” she said. “She can ride under my coat and stay warm.”

The air outside had grown even colder, and the wind was blowing harder than ever. Carole had to grab at her knit cap to keep it from flying away.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Lisa shouted over the sound of the wind. She zipped her jacket a little higher, covering Maxi up to just below her eyes.

“Just come on!” Carole shouted back. She headed down the hill toward the stable building, her body bent forward against the wind. The others huddled deeper into their coats and followed.

Soon they were letting themselves into the cozy warmth of the stable building.

“Whew!” Stevie exclaimed. She whipped her hat off and gave one last shudder as her body welcomed the heat. “That’s what I call cold.”

Lisa unzipped her jacket and checked on Maxi. The baby seemed fine. Even the tip of her nose was only a little bit pink from the cold. “It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for that wind,” she said. “Now I know what people mean when they talk about a howling gale.” She could still hear the wind rattling the eaves and hurling itself against the outside of the building. But inside, the more immediate sounds were those of the horses, shifting and nickering sleepily in their stalls or munching on a bedtime snack of hay.

“We’d better unwrap Maxi a little bit,” Carole pointed out. “It’s pretty warm in here, and we don’t want her to get overheated.”

They removed the baby’s hat and a few layers of her clothing. “Okay, that’s better,” Stevie said. She hoisted Maxi onto one hip. “Now let’s go say hello to some of our four-footed friends. Okay, Maxi?”

She started down the nearest row of stalls. Most of the inhabitants had stuck their heads out over their half doors when the girls had entered. And most of them were eager to snuffle at the baby as Stevie held her up to pat their big, soft muzzles.

“See?” Stevie said as Maxi gurgled at Nickel, a sweet gray stable pony. “It’s just as we suspected. This is her natural environment.”

Carole was happy to see that her friend seemed to have stopped brooding about her missing boyfriend. “I’m not arguing with you on that one,” she said with a laugh. “Although I feel I should point out that Maxi seems pretty happy just about anywhere except for her bed.”

Coconut, the flaxen chestnut gelding, was in the stall next to Nickel’s. Once again, Stevie held the baby up to pat the horse. Coconut pricked his ears forward curiously, then lowered his head toward the tiny visitor. Maxi stretched out her hand to touch the horse on the nose and let out a delighted chortle. The horse gazed at her with his big, liquid brown eyes.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Coconut was smiling,” Lisa commented softly. “He must like babies.”

Carole watched as the horse started snuffling at Maxi’s downy brown hair. The baby giggled and threw up her hands. “I guess he does,” Carole said with a smile. “Although I think Coconut pretty much likes everyone.”

They moved on down the stable row. Maxi cooed and chuckled at the other stable horses and boarders, from the Arabian gelding Barq to the Thoroughbred mare Calypso to Polly Giacomin’s horse, Romeo.

The girls skirted the stall where Geronimo, Pine Hollow’s resident stallion, lived. They knew that stallions were more unpredictable than geldings or mares, so they didn’t take the baby to meet him. As they rounded the corner, they found themselves standing before the stall of an even-tempered Appaloosa gelding named Chip, short for Chippewa.

Chip seemed as curious about the baby as most of the other horses had been. Stevie’s arms were getting tired, so she handed Maxi to Carole and stretched. She was also getting warm, so she removed her jacket and hung it over the door of an unoccupied stall across the aisle.

“Say hi to Chip, Maxi,” Carole said encouragingly.

“Ga!” Maxi exclaimed, stretching out both arms toward the horse.

Carole glanced at the others and shrugged. “I’d say that’s close enough, wouldn’t you?” she said.

Lisa and Stevie leaned against the door of the empty
stall and watched as the baby tugged on Chip’s mane. “He’s really a patient horse, isn’t he?” Lisa mused.

Stevie nodded. “I’ve only ridden him once or twice, but he’s a doll,” she said. “He’s superfriendly and never fights his rider.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Lisa asked.

“Only if you’re thinking that Chip could be a candidate for Britt,” Stevie replied with a grin, knowing very well that Lisa was thinking exactly that.

Carole twisted her head around. Maxi was busily rubbing Chip’s neck with her little hands. “Look, she’s grooming him,” she said. “What are you guys talking about?”

Lisa told her. “I was just thinking about all the horses here,” she said. “Even though it would be weird in one way if Max sold one of his school horses to the Lynns, it wouldn’t be in another way, since Britt would be sure to board him right here. And there are lots of really great horses at Pine Hollow to choose from.”

Carole nodded thoughtfully. She walked down to the next stall, where a chestnut gelding named Comanche lived. The horse snorted suspiciously at the baby, but he soon gave in to his curiosity and lowered his head to be patted. “There
are
a lot of great horses here,” Carole said. “But I don’t think all of them are that great for someone like Britt. She’s so shy and timid, but she’s also a really good rider. That’s kind of a weird combination, don’t you think?”

“I see what you mean,” Stevie said. “She needs a nice, friendly horse that won’t scare her, like Chip. But she also needs a confident, talented horse that will challenge her skills, like Comanche.”

Lisa gazed at Comanche, then turned to look at Chip, who still had his head out and was watching them. “In that case, maybe neither one is the right horse for her.” She sounded a little disappointed.

“Don’t worry,” Carole said. “Even if they’re not right, another horse might be. Barq, for instance, or Diablo. Or maybe a horse from another stable.” She shrugged. “When it comes right down to it, Britt is the only one who can really decide. All we can do is try to narrow down her choices for her so she’ll have an easier time picking her new horse.”

“And try to keep her from realizing that’s what she’s doing,” Stevie put in.

They were still talking about Britt a few minutes later when they reached Belle’s and Starlight’s stalls, which were next to each other. Lisa held the baby while Stevie and Carole greeted their horses and wished them a happy New Year. Carole found a few carrot sticks in her coat pocket, and she gave Stevie and Lisa some for their horses.

As she let herself out of Belle’s stall, Stevie glanced at her watch. “Uh-oh,” she said. “lt’s almost ten minutes to ten already. We’d better get back to the house. I don’t want to miss another call.”

Carole noticed that although Stevie seemed concerned, she no longer seemed annoyed or angry.
That’s the great thing about horses
, Carole told herself happily.
They can always make you feel better—about anything!

The girls walked back to the entrance, where they had left Maxi’s outer clothing. Carole started to bundle up the baby while her friends watched.

As Carole slipped a tiny wool sweater over Maxi’s head, the baby’s mouth stretched open in a big yawn. “Aha!” Carole exclaimed. “It looks like our plan might have worked. She’s getting sleepy.”

“Don’t count on it,” Stevie advised. “My guess is that she knows she’s about to leave the stable and she’s bored already.”

Lisa grinned. “She really does seem to love the horses, doesn’t she?” she said. It wasn’t the first time she had noticed it, but the fact never ceased to delight her. “It’s almost as if she knows her destiny as Max the Fourth.” Maxi’s father’s full name was Maximilian Regnery III. Even though Maxi’s name was Maxine and didn’t have a number after it, The Saddle Club still thought of her as Max IV, born and bred to carry Pine Hollow into the next generation.

“I think you’re right,” Carole said. “It’s fate.” She grinned. “No matter what Deborah thinks about that!”

The others laughed. Then Carole finished tying Maxi’s hat on and tucked her back into the carrier, which Stevie had volunteered to wear this time.

“I’m hoping Maxi will help keep me warm on the way back up,” she admitted as the baby nestled against her and let out another yawn.

The girls braced themselves as Lisa swung open the door. The wind was still blowing furiously in harsh, whipping gusts that made the surrounding treetops swing crazily against the moonlit sky.

“What a night!” Carole called.

The others didn’t answer. They raced around the building and across the lawn, cutting through the small pasture at one corner of the stable. Stevie watched the ground carefully as she ran. She didn’t want to trip while she was carrying the baby. But she also wanted to get back inside as fast as she possibly could. It was freezing out there!

Soon the girls were jogging up the slight incline that indicated where the stable grounds ended and the Regnery yard began. “Am I going crazy, or is the wind starting to die down a little?” Lisa said.

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